Kate Johnson's Medical Musings

Life through the eyes of a medical journalist

Just Trying to do My Job

December 11, 2009

By Kate Johnson

Yesterday I posted a blog about how a TV station boosted the power of the British Medical Journal in making pharmaceutical giant Roche more accountable for questions about its antiviral drug oseltamivir  (Tamiflu).

I called this unusual partnership a giant leap for science because it achieved the goal of publicizing a problem in medical research.

Medical reporters and medical journals should have the same goals: namely to disseminate important medical information to a wider audience – be it the public, or the research community.

But unfortunately, I recently had the opposite experience with a medical journal.

A few weeks ago I attended a medical conference and heard an excellent presentation which I added to my list of articles to write for International Medical News Group.

I interviewed the researcher, and asked for her powerpoint slides– to make sure my article was accurate.

The next day she e-mailed me her apologies. She had attended a workshop on publication ethics delivered by the editors of a medical journal *.

“They informed me that I should not send you my slides and that this could jeopardize publication,” she wrote. “Clearly this is a difficult area. I’m happy to work with you on the article, but with this information, I feel I can’t send the slides.”

I wrote to the journal editors to register my complaint.

“My coverage  of the meeting falls within the guidelines approved by the  International Committee of Medical Journal Editors regarding  prepublication publicity (NEJM 328 (17):1283, 1993, and NEJM 324:424-8, 1991),” I wrote.

Specifically: “Policies designed to limit prepublication publicity should not apply to accounts in the media of presentations at scientific meetings or to the abstracts from these meetings.

Researchers who present their work at a  scientific meeting should feel free to discuss their presentations  with reporters, but they should be discouraged from offering more  detail about their study than was presented in their talk.”

It would surprise me if the [well-known medical journal *] was not  aware of these guidelines, which have been adopted by virtually every  medical journal, and which have assisted me in carrying out my work as  a medical journalist for the past 17 years.

Given that medical meetings and medical journals are committed to the  timely dissemination of accurate and relevant information to the wider  medical community, it seems unethical that the [well-known medical journal *] would put up unnecessary and unusual roadblocks for medical  journalists.

“My work, and that of my journalist colleagues is not in  competition with yours,” I wrote. “As a member of the American Medical Writers Association I am concerned that journalists, medical writers, physicians, researchers and journal teams should be working together  in their efforts to help the advancement of medical science and the treatment of patients.”

“Thank you for contacting us,” came the journal’s reply. “Attached for your information is our policy on prepublication release of information. As it states, researchers are welcome to share general information with the media. Like many other journals, we discourage researchers from sharing  detailed results prior to publication, as this greatly reduces the possibility that the journal will be able to obtain media coverage of their study at the time of publication.”

Let’s skip over the obvious fact (that I was an accredited journalist with a front row seat to the prepublication release of these detailed results), and focus on the sad fact. The sad fact is that this medical journal was blocking the dissemination of important information to the wider medical community. Why? For reasons of self-promotion. Rather than getting the medical information out there to help doctors – and patients – the journal wanted to first secure its own claim to it.

Ironically, the researcher had not even submitted her work to the journal in question, and has not yet submitted it to any other journal.

Still more ironic, her presentation had caught my interest because it dealt with one of my professional goals: the rapid dissemination of medical knowledge from the lab to the patient.

Too bad this short-sighted journal is slowing the pace.

I wrote the article anyway, without the slides, but with the kind cooperation of the researcher. At least she and I have our priorities straight.

* Because I support the dissemination of medical information I am withholding the name of the medical journal until the research is published.

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December 11, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. If the researcher has not yet submitted her work for publication, I do not see why the [well-known medical journal] should have anything to say here. Were they the journal for the medical society’s conference at which the data was presented, and therefore owned rights to the abstract?

    This is a potentially disturbing trend. They may own the rights to the abstract, but I do not see that they own the data. This is another argument for open access publication.

    Comment by migrainemaven | December 12, 2009 | Reply


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